The Perfect Distance: Ovett & Coe – The Record-Breaking Rivalry by Pat Butcher

There’s a poignant moment at the end of the (excellent) film Rush, where Formula 1 racer Niki Lauda admits to his arch-enemy James Hunt that their bitter enmity on the racetrack made them both better drivers and champions: A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”

Ali vs Forman. Federer vs Nadal. Coyote vs Roadrunner. Rivalries define all great eras in sport. Truth be told, most sports are quite boring to watch if you don’t have something invested in the human drama behind it all. Competition makes things interesting, which is one of the reasons why Mo Farah struggles to get the universal appreciation he deserves; at his preferred 5,000 and 10,000 distances, you never doubt that he will win.

For people my age (35) and younger, it’s hard to fully appreciate the excitement created by the Coe vs Ovett era of athletics in the early 1980s. The 9 o’clock news was famously interrupted to broadcast Coe’s attempt on the mile world record. For a brief period of time, the wider public actually cared about elite-level running. All of this generated by two men who only raced each other 7 times in 17 years.

The contrast between the two athletes has “film-script” written all over it (and, as it happens, Daniel Radcliffe has been cast as Sebastian Coe in a planned adaptation of this book). Steve Ovett was the tough working-class lad who was hated by the press, but admired for his innate talent. One of the things that emerges from this book is just how astonishing his natural ability actually was. Ovett could take on – and hammer his opponents at – a range of distances. Despite being a 1500m specialist, he once entered a half marathon on the day at a whim, and won it easily in 65mins. Seb Coe was the weedy posh kid who trained liked a demon, and whose impeccable manners endeared him to reporters. ‘The Tough and the Toff’ would dominate the narratives of both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and every major athletic meet in between. Coe was an 800m specialist, and Ovett a 1500m runner. Yet the curious outcome of their rivalry was that they actually won gold medals at each other’s distances, and neither won Olympic gold at their preferred event.

Both were in thrall to their parents to a degree that most of us would find unusual, bordering on unhealthy. Ovett’s mum, a market-trader with a potty mouth, controlled media access to her son, and her regular sweary tirades at reporters were partly responsible for Ovett’s poor standing with the press. Coe was coached by his engineer father, Peter Coe, well into his 20s, a highly unusual arrangement and relationship that few outsiders could understand. Peter’s political views were apparently somewhere between those of Thatcher and Genghis Khan, which goes some way to explaining Seb’s later career as a Tory MP. Ovett, meanwhile, once set the mile world record wearing a Soviet team vest. However, despite the class divide, what both parents gave their children is immense self-belief. At an early age, both athletes were told that they would make the Olympics in 1980. The mental barriers to success simply did not exist.

Pat Butcher’s book is as comprehensive a guide to their story as you could hope to read. As a long-time athletics correspondent with extended access to both Coe and Ovett, he writes as an insider, and his account is peppered with stories from the various colourful characters involved. One of the highlights is an interview with Olaf Beyer of the former German Democratic Republic, who shocked the sporting world by actually beating both men in 1978, and who promptly ran out of the stadium in shock at what he had achieved. Butcher is also good at rehabilitating Ovett, who he clearly regards as a self-assured man who ran for enjoyment of the sport and family pride, and who didn’t give a damn what the media thought. Ovett had a mischievous side though, and would have had fun in the age of Twitter, once baiting fellow British Olympian (and media bogeyman) Daley Thompson by describing Thompson’s event, the decathlon, as “9 Mickey Mouse events and a slow 1500m”.

If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that Butcher is a little too dedicated to providing finish times for virtually every race either man entered. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a stats nerd – but even I started to glaze slightly over in certain sections. I was reminded of the story of how one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s work-in-progress readings of Lord of the Rings was interrupted by a fellow Oxford academic with “Oh no! Not another f*cking elf!”.

It’s a minor complaint though. Butcher writes well, and his passion about the mile as a racing distance is infectious. “Four laps of the track. Like a four-act play. Prologue, Exposition, Action, Denouement. All inside four minutes.” As well as their Olympic feats, Coe and Ovett repeatedly traded the mile world record, and “The Perfect Distance” is a reminder of what has been lost in recent years. Why are serious mile races so rare? The current record is 16 years old. Someone, somewhere, needs to throw down the gauntlet to Mo.

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